Early this month, more than 200 social workers, therapists and psychiatrists at a Veterans Affairs Department facility in Illinois received an email they were not expecting: starting June 1, they would no longer be allowed to telework each day.
The mental health service line employees based at a hospital in Hines had been keeping all their normal appointments with their veteran patients from home via telehealth. Employees who cannot return to their work station or feel unsafe doing so can take sick leave or unpaid time off, the email said.
VA, like agencies across government, has sought to keep those who are not needed at their normal workstations home in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic, seeking to limit employee exposure and spread of COVID-19. Now, however, agencies are looking to reopen offices and bring workers back, in most cases slowly and in phases.
Environmental Protection Agency employees in three regions across the country will soon be recalled to the office, agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in an email to all EPA employees obtained by Government Executive. The reopenings will occur in Atlanta, Seattle and Lenexa, Kansas. The facilities will close entirely for seven days prior to the employees’ return to allow for any traces of the coronavirus to be rendered inactive, Wheeler said. EPA will continue to provide telework flexibilities for employees through the second phase of its reopening plan, and Wheeler said any employees at high risk of severe illness from COVID-19 should continue to telework through that phase.
Phase one of the White House’s reopening guidelines, which Wheeler referenced in his email, suggests employers call workers back in phases, close all common areas where employees congregate and “enforce strict social distancing protocols.” Wheeler said employees would only return to the three identified offices after a second review of the data. Each of the agency’s facilities across the country will enter phase one based on local conditions, he explained.
“Our plan for an eventual phased return to EPA offices will take a measured and deliberate approach that ensures your health and safety,” Wheeler said.
The Trump administration said in a memorandum issued last month that agencies should work in consultation with local leaders and public health officials to determine when to reopen offices. The recalls would not occur on a single day nor would they be top-down decisions from the White House, an Office of Management and Budget official said last week. The official added those decisions would be driven by agency mission, noting employees facing more difficulties conducting their normal tasks while working remotely would likely be recalled more quickly.
That mission-based decision making led the Internal Revenue Service to solicit 10,000 volunteers to return to their offices to carry out responsibilities related to the delayed tax season. It subsequently reopened offices in three states, identifying 11,000 workers to return. IRS said it would provide protective equipment and supplies while enforcing social distancing, though the recalls have already encountered some turbulence after an employee in Kansas City tested positive for COVID-19 days after voluntarily returning to work. Recalled employees must take personal leave to care for children who remain at home due to school or day care closures.
IRS policies have done little to “alleviate the anxiety of the IRS frontline employees, who just like most Americans, recognize that the health crisis has not fully subsided and are worried about protecting themselves and their families,” said Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union.
Employees at the VA facility in Illinois are questioning what mission-impact the decision to recall mental health staff will have. In March, Richard Stone, acting head of the Veterans Health Administration, said in a memo that VA had built out its systems to ensure “bandwidth is no longer a barrier to placing employees, both non-clinical and clinical, on appropriate telework agreements.” With the technology in place and veterans remaining at home, employees have questioned what advantage there is to returning to their offices.
“They don’t understand,” said Germaine Clarno, a Hines employee and president of the American Federation of Government Employees chapter that represents the workforce there said of her colleagues. “What they’re concerned about mostly is their health, their children and their family members.”
Clarno noted some employees considered at risk for severe illness from COVID-19 will now have to take sick leave, rather than serving veterans from home as they have been.
“Veterans have not been complaining about telework. They don’t want to come in anyway,” Clarno said. “It just really makes no sense why they would put people’s lives at risk.”
James Doelling, the medical center director at Hines, told Clarno it was “absolutely false” he had given an order to bring employees back June 1, as stated in the email employees received earlier this month. Doelling suggested the date would eventually be pushed back, but that had not occurred as of Tuesday afternoon. VA did not respond to a request for comment.
Some agencies, meanwhile, are pushing back their reopening dates. The Merit Systems Protection Board, for example, announced on Tuesday it was extending its mandatory telework for all locations through at least June 12.
OMB has instructed agencies to consider “creative solutions,” such as creating rotational cohorts in which employees come into the office for five days per month. The administration has encouraged agencies to take a phased approach to reopening, enabling employees the most at risk of severe symptoms from COVID-19 to continue to work remotely as long as necessary.